'Up to 1 million' Hutus flee advancing rebels

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The Independent Online
GOMA, Zaire - Driven by fear, hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees in western Rwanda overwhelmed a tiny border crossing and flooded into Zaire yesterday. A Red Cross official who spoke on condition of anonymity estimated that starting late yesterday, refugees were crossing the border at the rate of 10,000 per hour along a tiny road just north of Goma.

Behind those first Rwandan refugees, one aid worker estimated that 1 million refugees - 'a wall of people' - were seen yesterday on a 40km (25 mile) stretch of road from Ruhengeri to Gisenyi. The refugees were fleeing ahead of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), the Tutsi rebel group that holds two-thirds of the country and is advancing west on remaining government troops.

The tiny border crossing - manned by one guard along a dirt road - was overrun after Zairean officials closed the main crossing at Goma. Aid workers and reporters, who had used Goma as their base of operations for western Rwanda, were allowed to cross back into Zaire at Goma, but only on foot. Cars had to be left in Rwanda.

Gisenyi, a city in western Rwanda across the border from Goma, is the stronghold of Rwanda's interim government, made up of members of its Hutu majority. Rebels have threatened to march on to Gisenyi, if the Hutu leaders who encouraged the massacre of an estimated 200,000 people this spring - mostly Tutsi civilians and Hutu opposition leaders - are not apprehended.

The journey from Ruhengeri to Gisenyi, which usually takes about an hour, took more than four hours yesterday, the aid worker said, along a road clogged with people, cars, carts, and herds of goats and cows. At one point, the aid worker said, the crowd came under fire, apparently from RPF rebels. The refugees panicked, dropped their few possessions and scattered, but it appeared the shots were fired over the heads of the crowd. The worker said there was no sign that anyone was injured.

The sudden flood of refugees concerned aid officials because they were entering a region close to Africa's second-highest active volanco, Nyiragonga, which stands at 11,400ft (3,477m). In the past, lava flows from the volcano have cut the road to Goma.

Earlier, ceasefire hopes were delayed when the rebel-picked prime minister did not arrive as planned to form a new government. Faustin Twagiramungu was due in Kigali, the capital, early yesterday, but will now arrive today.